It seems like every 15 minutes someones coming out with his own apocalyptic views on changes in the music industry, but two things happened within the last few weeks that seemed like action rather than talk. One was the Village Voices dismissal of Robert Christgau. The second was the closing of Tower Records.
Being born in 1974 with a taste for music from earlier decades, Ive gotten used to seeing major performers leave the stage. However, these two new events are both less permanent and more ignominious than death. Its a bit like seeing two fellow climbers on the music mountain fall under avalanches, and its typical of the Internet age that the published reactions are tending more towards schadenfreude than regret.
I have my reservations about all first-wave rock critics (although not as many as I do about all later-wave rock critics), but Christgau would be the one Id pick over the rest. Reluctant as I am to praise anyone who would characterize Zappas music as eccentric clich his wit and ability to say a lot in a short space are things I envy as a music writer. Perhaps the Voices decision had less to do with blog power and more to do with the limited market for the rock perspectives of a man in his mid 60s, but I still read him up to the end. Lets say my feelings about him are similar to his about, say, Elton John, to name one artist whose A-minus-to-C-minus Christgau reviews amount to a mini-novel and, although Christgau might not have bothered commenting on Eltons latest under any circumstances, its a shame that were less likely now to hear his take on it.
The powers-that-were at Tower Records didnt see fit to bestow one of their stores upon my home state, Ohio. As a result, I once associated Tower with trips to San Francisco and New York and purchases of 1969 Miles bootlegs or Anthony Braxton releases on Swiss labels. Like Christgau, Tower started as a symbol of prestige and gradually became something more commonplace and flawed in my eyes. Living in and around Chicago in more recent years, Id come to notice how the CD organization seemed more and more careless (apparently some Nick Drake CDs are folk while others are rock), the prices more oppressively high (unless you were buying something released less than a month ago, and sometimes even then), the store ambience more often characterized by kiddie movies on one end and whatever Clive Davis was pumping that week on the other.
Perhaps the obituaries are premature. Christgau will likely find a second act in one venue or another (currently, more or less every word hes written is available on his website, a rather consumer-friendly step for the Internet age), and I suspect that while thousands of Tower cash register operators will be displaced, the powers that were wont end up working at gas stations. Still, both have lost their perch, and while there is no shortage of indie scenesters filling the pages of the Voice, and a limited supply of other stores of comparable reach in the more culturally developed American cities, odds are that we will be left with a void rather than seeing new institutions rise to fill the gaps.
I cant say that Im outside the tide that swept these old formations away. I became a fan of the Internet in the early Nineties, which was around the same time it became clear that my music canon was going to have little in common with Rolling Stones 100 Best Rock Albums of All Time. And, long before the Tower announcement, I was visiting other music markets with the same eagerness I used reserve for a record store trip. These markets, though, were accessible from the computer in my spare room whenever I was home, and only a few of them required me to give my money to any middleman. Or, I should add with a guiltier conscience, any artist.
In any event, those who have been wishing for more independence are getting their way. Instead of one primary store and one self-appointed Dean of opinionated music fans, there will now be more people reading more sites and giving listening time, and in some cases, money, to a wider range of music resources. Artists will feel less pressure to buy their way into Tower or work their way into Christgaus good graces. We will be without their hurdles and prejudices, but also without their experience and resources. Do your best.
Incidentally, theres a certain irony in the fact that, while I have rarely been impressed by the Voices non-Christgau rock writing, their schadenfreude-dominant Tower piece seemed more or less on the money to me.